The Late Vitalism of Wilhelm Reich:
Selected Quotations

Since everything in nature knits together in one way or another, the theme of "orgonomic functionalism" is practically inexhaustible. My natural-scientific interests and studies blended the humanistic and scientific accomplishments of the 19th and early 20th century into the living tool that later, as "orgonomic functionalism," took on useful and applicable form. Although functional thinking is here described systematically for the first time, it was, nevertheless, applied by many researchers, more or less consciously, before, in the form of orgonomy, it finally overcame the rigid barriers in natural science. I would like now to mention a few of the most important names to whose bearers I am greatly indebted: De Coster, Dostoievski, Albert Lange, Friedrich Nietzsche, Lewis Morgan, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Engels, Semon, Bergson, Freud, Malinowski. If I said earlier that I had found myself in a new realm of thought, one must not take that to mean that orgonomic functionalism bad been "finished" and had only been waiting for me; no more does it mean that I simply appropriated the methodology of Bergson or Engels and applied it smoothly to my own realm of work. The formulation of the thought technique was itself a work‑accomplishment which had to be supplied in the struggle of my daily activities as physician and researcher against the mechanistic and the mystical explanations of the living. Thus, I have not created some kind of a new philosophy which, following or approximating other philosophies of life, would attempt to bring the living closer to human comprehension. No, this is not a philosophy, as many of my friends believe. On the contrary, it is a tool of thinking that one must learn to use if one wishes to explore and deal with the living. Orgonomic functionalism is no luxury item that one may use or discard as one pleases. It joins together the laws of thinking and the perceptual functions which one must master if one wants children and adolescents to grow up in a life‑affirmative manner in this world, if one wishes to bring the human animal again into harmony with his natural biology and with surrounding nature. One may be against such a goal for philosophic or religious reasons. One may, of course, as a "pure philosopher" declare that the "unity of nature and culture" is impossible or harmful or unethical or unimportant. But no one may today come out and assert that the splitting up of the human animal into a cultural and a private, an official and a personal existence, into a "preserver of higher values" and "an orgonotic energy system," does not undermine his health in the truest sense of the word, does not cripple his intelligence, does not destroy his joie de vivre, does not paralyze his initiative, does not plunge his society again and again into chaos. The protection of the living demands functional thinking in opposition to mechanism and mysticism as surely as the protection of traffic demands good brakes and a faultlessly working signal‑apparatus. [pp. 22-23.  From Ether, God and Devil, 1949.]

We are dealing here with gigantic contradictions, contradictions which are insoluble within the framework of the known forms of energy. They have been occupying the minds of biologists and natural philosophers for a long time. Attempts were made to bridge the gap with concepts which were to make comprehensible the specific living functioning. Such attempts were made primarily by the opponents of mechanistic materialism, by the vitalists. Driesch, e.g., tried to solve the problem by introducing the concept of "entelechy," a vital energy pertaining to living matter and governing it. As this energy was not tangible and measurable, his concept was doomed to lead into metaphysics. Bergson's "élan vital" also took into account the incompatibility of the known forms of energy and living functioning. His "force créatrice" represents an explosive function of matter, manifesting itself most clearly in living functioning. Bergson's hypothesis was directed against mechanistic materialism as well as teleological finalism. It comprehended correctly the basically functional character of the living but it lacked empirical substantiation. The force in question was neither measurable nor tangible or otherwise capable of being influenced. [pp. 194-195.  From “The Discovery of the Orgone”, 1942.]

Human phantasy life is at variance with reality and ever changing according to subjective wishes; thus, scientific research had to be based on the objective, realistic basis of experiment. The ideal experiment makes our judgment independent of our subjective phantasies, illusions and wishes. In short, man has no confidence in his perceptive capabilities. In his investigations be rightly prefers to depend on the photographic plate, the microscope or the electroscope.

But in spite of all the progress brought about by our turning from subjective experience to objective observation, it also made us lose an essential quality of research. True, what we observe objectively is existing‑but it is unalive, dead. In the interest of scientific objectivity, we have learned to kill the living even before we proceed to make any statements about it. Thus we build, of necessity, a mechanical machine­like picture of the living, a picture in which is lacking the most essential quality, the specific aliveness. The aliveness reminds us too much of the intense subjective sensations of our childhood. These subjective vegetative sensations are at the basis of every kind of mysticism, be it Yoga, or the Fascist "surging of the blood," or the reaction of a spiritist medium, or the ecstasies of a dervish. Mysticism asserts the existence of certain forces and processes which natural science denies or looks at with contempt.

Simple consideration says: Man cannot feel or phantasy anything which does not actually exist in one form or another. For human perceptions are nothing but a function of objective natural processes within the organism. Could there not be a reality behind our "subjective" visual impressions after all? Could it be possible that in these subjective impressions we perceive the biological energy within our own organism? Let us see whether this idea is as strange as it seems.

To do away with the subjective visual impression by calling it "phantasy” is erroneous. This "phantasy" takes place in an organism which is governed by certain natural laws; therefore, it must be real. We are only just emerging from a period in which medicine called all functional and nervous complaints "unreal" or "imaginary," because they were not understood. But a headache is a headache, and a visual impression is a visual impression, whether we understand it or not.

Of course we will reject the mystical assertions which are based on the misinterpretation of vegetative sensations. But that does not justify denying the existence of these sensations. We also have to reject a mechanistic natural science because it divorces the vegetative sensations from the natural processes taking place in the organs. Self‑perception is an essential part of the natural life‑process. It is not nerves here, muscles there and vegetative sensations in a third place; rather, the processes taking place in the tissues form an indivisible functional unity with their perception. This is, indeed, one of the essential guiding lines in our therapeutic work. Pleasure and anxiety represent a certain state of functioning of the total organism. We have to distinguish clearly between functional thinking and mechanistic thinking which cuts things apart and will never grasp living functioning. Let us put down four important principles of a functional concept of nature:

1. Every living organism is a functional unit; it is not merely a mechanical sum total of organs. The basic biological function governs every individual organ as it governs the total organism.

2. Every living organism is a part of surrounding nature and functionally identical with it.

3. Every perception is based on the consonance of a function within the organism with a function in the outer world; that is, it is based on vegetative harmony.

4. Every form of self‑perception is the immediate expression of objective processes in the organism (psychophysical identity).

Nothing is to be expected of the philosophical speculations concerning the reality of our sensations as long as the principle is not recognized that the perceiving subject and the observed and perceived object form a functional unity. Mechanistic science splits up this unity into a duality. The mechanistic empiricism of science of today is hopeless, for it excludes sensation completely.

Every important discovery originates from the subjective experiencing of an objective fact, that is, from vegetative harmony. It is only a matter of making the subjective sensation objective, of separating it from the stimulus and of comprehending the source of the stimulus. This is something which we, in our vegetotherapeutic work with the patient, do many times every hour in the process of comprehending the bodily expression of the patient. In this process, we identify ourselves with the patient and his functions. After we have compre­hended them vegetatively we let our intellect work and thus make the phenomenon an objective one.   [pp. 217-219. From “The Discovery of the Orgone”, 1942.]

Materialistic philosophy started not with mechanical, but strangely enough­ with psychological basic questions, exactly as orgone biophysics had its origin in psychiatric problems of biological drive dynamics: WHAT IS SENSATION? HOW CAN MATTER PERCEIVE ITSELF? WHAT IS SENSATION BOUND TO? UNDER WHICH CONDITIONS IS THERE SENSATION AND UNDER WHICH IS SENSATION ABSENT?

Ancient natural science, distinguished then, and to this day leading in the right direction in its tendencies, proceeded not from materialistic, but from functional problems, which included and did not exclude sensation. In these functional processes, and not in materialistic questions, did the scientific spirit emerge in contrast to the metaphysical and mystical. In these questions was kindled the raging battle of the emotional plague against the equation God = natural law. In these questions, and originally not in the mechanical laws of gravitation, the burning struggle began for the correct conception of the world and the processes in it. For it was clear to every investigating spirit that it is solely our sensation of the natural processes inside and outside ourselves, which holds the keys to the deep riddles of nature. The sensation of living protoplasm is a real phenomenon, this side of, and not beyond, human life. Sensation is the sieve through which all inner and outer stimuli are perceived; sensation is the connecting link between ego and outer world. [p. 275.  From Ether, God and Devil, 1949.]

We have determined by controlled, clinical experiences that there is always a wall inserted between organ sensation and objective excitation in mystical human beings. This wall is objective; it is the muscular armor of the mystic. Every attempt to bring a mystic into direct contact with his excitations causes anxiety or even fainting. He can feel the emotion as in a mirror, but not really. This assertion is based on an experience which I have often had: If the orgone‑therapeutic dissolution of the armor in the mystic is successful, then the "mystical experiences" disappear. Thus, the existence of a separating wall between excitation and sensation is the basis of the mystical experience.

The mystical experience is rarely found without brutal‑sadistic impulses. Furthermore, to my knowledge orgastic potency is not found in mystics nor mysticism in orgastically potent individuals.

Accordingly, mysticism rests on a blocking of direct organ sensations, and on the re‑emergence of these sensations in the pathological perception of "supernatural powers." This is valid for spiritualists, schizophrenics, religious physicists, and for every form of paranoia. If, then, a mystical character, with the given conditions of his structure, tries to describe nature, he will only be able to reach one result: A picture of reality in which, to be sure, the real processes are mirrored, not, however, in harmony with objective processes, but distorted: as an influence by electric currents in paranoid schizophrenics, as a blue-gray vaporous ghost in spiritualists, as a sensation of the "world spirit" in religious epileptics, as the "absolute" in metaphysics. [p. 288.  From Ether, God and Devil, 1949.]

Thus both the animist and the mystic touch on reality. The difference is the distortion of reality into the absolute or grotesque in mystics, the animation of the inanimate in animists.  The assertions of the mystics are easy to see through and to refute. Those of the animists are more difficult to refute, and easier to comprehend rationally. The concept spread and con­firmed so widely of a harmony in nature is at bottom an animistic concept, which in the mystic is degraded into a personified world spirit or into a godlike universal being. The mystic remains stuck in the absolute. The absolute is intangible. The animist keeps moving. His outlooks are shifting. And, compared with the mystic, he has the advantage that his natural outlook contains a practical core of truth. The animist Kepler, who formulated the planetary harmonic law, is, after centuries, correct with his "vis animalis" which moves the planets. THE SAME ENERGY WHICH GOVERNS THE MOVEMENTS OF ANIMALS AND THE GROWTH OF ALL LIVING SUBSTANCE ALSO ACTUALLY MOVES THE HEAVENLY BODIES.

In the functional identity of organismic and cosmic orgone is to be sought the origin of all animistic and genuinely religious world concepts. In it, we also have the rational core of animism and genuine religiosity before us; we must free this rational core from its mystical wrapping in order to reach the rewarding naked kernel that leads us, in strict natural­scientific fashion, to the physical function of the cosmic energy. Under "physical function" is here understood the orgonomic law of movement which has to be formulated orgonometrically. The poetic and philosophic equation of life sensation and cosmic function is correct, but insufficient to bring the species of the human animal again into harmony with nature inside and outside himself. The human animal can only grasp and learn to love the nature inside and outside himself when he thinks and behaves as nature functions, namely, functionally and not mechanistically or mystically.  [p. 289.  From Ether, God and Devil, 1949.]

Sensation is, functionally seen, a tester of reality. The slowly feeling, undulating movements of animal antennae or tentacles illustrate what is meant here. Sensation forms the greatest riddle of natural science as death is the greatest plight of the living. Hence, functionalism knows correctly the worth of sensations and values them highly. Since it observes sensation as a tool, it is as careful for its cleanliness as a carpenter is for his plane. The functionalist will always keep arranging his perceptual and intellectual activity so that it is in harmony with his "experience." Where the amount of irrationality is small—and it can never be large in any work which investigates nature—one listens to the gentle urgings of the sensations which tell one whether one thinks correctly or falsely, colored by personal interests or clearly, whether one follows irrational inclinations or objective processes. All this has nothing to do with mysticism. It has solely to do with the cleanliness of the sensory apparatus, our tool of natural research. This clean condition is no "gift," no special "talent," but a continuous exertion, a prolonged practice in self-criticism and self‑control. We learn how to control our sensory apparatus when we have to treat biopathic patients. Without a constantly clear sensory apparatus, without the capacity for cleaning it up when it becomes irrationally blurred, we could not take a step into the depths of human character structure, or mirror natural processes as they are.

Such observations and viewpoints in natural research (and the emotional life of mankind is certainly a part of nature!) are foreign to the chemists, the physicists of the old school, the astronomers and the technicians. They do not know the sensory apparatus with which they explore the world. They are able to control their acts only by experimentation, and experiments without organ sensation have, as we know, led mechanistic natural science nowhere in decisive questions of nature.  [p. 291.  From Ether, God and Devil, 1949.]

Natural‑scientific research by experimentation was a decisive step forward toward objective observation. But the mechanistically executed experiment has separated the researcher from the direct observation of nature. Man's distrust of his power of judgment and the rationality of his emotions was justifiably so gigantic that be has overburdened the objective experiment. He has refused to investigate tissue in the living state just as he has rejected observation of the atmosphere with the naked eye. "Objective experiments," such as the Michelson‑Morley light experiment which did away with the ether, are catastrophic events in scientific research. One can only control the living observer by experimentation, but one cannot replace him. A mechanistically working and thinking character structure in the observer cannot be fructified by experimentation. Hence it was always the rebel against mechanism in science who overstepped sharp boundaries and made his discoveries precisely through his heterodoxy. The rebel simply turned to direct observation and to natural, i.e., functional, connection of the observations. These rebels of natural science were also rebels in thinking; they functioned in a living way, transgressed boundaries, broke down fences, as in the question of the unchangeability of chemical substances, in the relationship between energy and mass, in the relationship between man and animal, etc. One need only think of what psychology has accomplished by the application of direct observation.

Thus functionalism uses the experiment for confirmation of its observations and results of thought. It does not replace thinking and observation by experimentation. The mechanist has no confidence in his thinking and observation, and he is correct in having no confidence in them. The functionalist has confidence in his senses and in his thinking. He is distinguished from the mystic in that he knows the uncertainties and controls them by experimentation. He is distinguished from the mechanist in that he does not exclude observation, considers everything possible, breaks down, through his grasping of relationships, the boundaries between the sciences and always advances in disciplined fashion to the simpler functioning principle.  [pp. 302-303.  From Ether, God and Devil, 1949.]

Since the mechanist does not understand the living, he must take flight into mysticism. Therefore, all mechanistic world pictures are always mystical and must be mystical. Mechanistic thinking itself is clearly modeled after the structure of the social patriarchy when it sees the master in the brain, the telegraph wires in the nerves, and the executing subjects in the organs. And behind the brain "works God," or "reason," or "purpose." The situation in natural‑scientific comprehension still remains as hopelessly confused as before.

For functionalism, there is no "higher" center and no "lower" executive organ. The nerve cells do not produce impulses but only transmit them. The organism as a whole forms a natural cooperative of equally important organs of different function. When natural social work democracy is biologically based, we find it modeled after the harmonic cooperation of the organs. Multiplicity and differentiation combine into a unity. The function itself governs the cooperation. Every organ lives for itself, functioning in its own realm on the basis of its own functions and impulses. The hand grasps and the gland secretes. The individual organs are self‑active living creatures, equipped with their own sensation and function.  [p. 311.  From Ether, God and Devil, 1949.]

In the mechanistic technician of physics, the observation of the physical functions of nature split off from the emotional manifestations as "physics" here and "mysticism" or "religiousness" there. On the other hand, in the well­-trained orgonomic observer, these two modes of experiencing nature, otherwise so much opposed to each other, are united into one single picture. Here the physical does not exclude or contradict the meaningful, nor the quantitative the qualitative. We are aware that these matters are of a deep natural‑philosophic significance. The sharp boundary lines between physics and what is called "metaphysics” have broken down. The metaphysical intuition has a physical basis: "GOD" and ''ETHER" are ONE. When a theoretically well‑trained orgonomist, i.e., trained physically as well as bio‑energetically, which is rare indeed, reads of the many attempts at a reconciliation between the physical world picture which governs thought in Western Civilization, and the mystical, "aesthetic" world picture which governs the Eastern world; When he follows the attempts to reconcile the Objective in Western science and the Subjective in Eastern religious philosophy, he must, inevitably, see before his eyes the behavior of bions, of an electroscopic charge, of a frozen bion water preparation with its contracted yellow core from which later living plasmatic flakes will derive, and he will be awed by the unity of physical action and emotional meaningfulness in the Oranur effects.

Newton and Goethe are, with their respective physical world pictures, no longer as much antipodes as they used to be. Their points of view can and will be reconciled. The scientist and the artist are no longer keepers of two disparate, unmixable worlds, as they still seem to be. Intellect and intuition are no longer irreconcilable opposites in scientific work. As a matter of fact, they have never been so in basic natural research.

The reader understands well what we are driving at here:


This does not mean, of course, that the distinctions entirely cease to exist. On the contrary, in the light of the functional identity between man and animal, orgastic longing and cosmic longing, God and Ether, etc., the specific differences emerge the more sharply, and to the good of rational discrimination.  [pp. 422-423.  From The Oranur Experiment, First Report (1947-1951), 1951.]

It IS possible to get out of a trap. However, in order to break out of a prison, one first must confess to being in a prison. The trap is man's emotional structure, his character structure. There is little use in devising systems of thought about the nature of the trap if the only thing to do in order to get out of the trap is to know the trap and to find the exit. Everything else is utterly useless: Singing hymns about the suffering in the trap, as the enslaved Negro does; or making poems about the beauty of freedom outside of the trap, dreamed of within the trap; or promising a life outside the trap after death, as Catholicism promises its congregations; or confessing a semper ignorabimus as do the resigned philosophers; or building a philosophic system around the despair of life within the trap, as did Schopenhauer; or dreaming up a superman who would be so much different from the man in the trap, as Nietzsche did, until, trapped in a lunatic asylum, he wrote, finally, the full truth about himself—too late. . . .

The first thing to do is to find the exit out of the trap.

The nature of the trap has no interest whatsoever beyond this one crucial point: WHERE IS THE EXIT OUT OF THE TRAP?

One can decorate a trap to make life more comfortable in it.

This is done by the Michelangelos and the Shakespeares and the Goethes. One can invent makeshift contraptions to secure longer life in the trap. This is done by the great scientists and physicians, the Meyers and the Pasteurs and the Flemings. One can devise great art in healing broken bones when one falls into the trap.

The crucial point still is and remains: to find the exit out of the trap. WHERE IS THE EXIT INTO THE ENDLESS OPEN SPACE?

The exit remains hidden. It is the greatest riddle of all. The most ridiculous as well as tragic thing is this:


It turns out that the trouble is not with the trap or even with finding the exit. The trouble is WITHIN THE TRAPPED ONES.

All this is, seen from outside the trap, incomprehensible to a simple mind. It is even somehow insane. Why don't they see and move toward the clearly visible exit? As soon as they get close to the exit they start screaming and run away from it. As soon as anyone among them tries to get out, they kill him. Only a very few slip out of the trap in the dark night when everybody is asleep.  [pp. 470-471.  From The Murder of Christ, 1953.]

There is, however, an irrational rationale in the persecution of the truth, which cannot be overlooked if truthful living is eventually to prevail. Truth turns critically toward itself, as it were. If it has been persecuted through the ages, it reasons truthfully, there must be a good reason for it. There was a good reason in the rise of fascism of both the black and the red variety: Fascism has awakened a sleeping world to the realities of the irrational, mystical character structure of the people of the world. The rationale of the evil influence of fascism in the twentieth century upon the Asiatic masses is a serious reminder of what harm the mystical transformation of living Life has done to billions of human beings over the ages. Such rational functions within the ugly irrational are a part of living Life, and the truthful organism will acknowledge it. If we do not exactly agree with the command to love one's enemy, we can readily agree that "Love Your Enemy" had the meaning of "Understand the motives of your Enemy." Not a single leading politician in Germany before Hitler's ascent to the reign of terror had really studied Hitler's gospel. So they kept babbling about his being a "bought servant of the bourgeoisie." To know the rational in the deeply irrational is the mark of truthful living, that is, of fully alive perception of the conditions of one's life.  [p. 500.  From The Murder of Christ, 1953. Boldface added here.]

SOURCE: Reich, Wilhelm. Selected Writings: An Introduction to Orgonomy.  New York: The Noonday Press, 1961. All page numbers refer to this work, which anthologizes the works by Reich cited.

Note: These quotations are not compiled for the purpose of endorsement. (Note also that the originals of Reich's earlier works—not those excerpted here—were edited upon re-publication by his orgonomy acolytes.) Reich's late vitalism is a unique, instructive, and original twist on a familiar theme, vitiating real insights with pseudoscientific drivel. For my commentary, see:

The Late Vitalism of Wilhelm Reich: Commentary

. . . and, for the general philosophical issues:

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

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